Maureen Dowd’s new column proposes that all the squirtgun scolding after Joe Biden’s press party reinforces the myth that Obama is cozy with the press. But Biden is kicking it with journalists, she argues, precisely because Obama is so consistently down on the Fourth Estate:
The press traveling with Obama on the campaign never had a lovey-dovey relationship with him. He treated us with aloof correctness, and occasional spurts of irritation…. Sometimes on the campaign plane, I would watch Obama venture back to make small talk with the press, discussing food at an event or something light. Then I would see him literally back away a few moments later as a blast of questions and flipcams hit him.
I spend a lot less time near Obama than Times columnists, or the White House press corps, but that description definitely matches my experience on Obama’s plane in the 2008 campaign. The plane was proximity without access. Obama was generally nearby; reporters could cover how he looked, what he said at events or snippets of substance-free banter with the press. Yet he rarely took questions— whether casually in the aisles or through scheduled press conferences—and his aides focused on handpicked interviews over freewheeling free-for-alls. These tendencies have only hardened in the White House.
As president, Obama has done far fewer press conferences than recent predecessors. He had gone a whopping 300 days without a formal press conference when he summoned reporters to talk BP a few weeks back. (Had you even heard about that drought? Now imagine if President Bush tried that move.) Meanwhile, Obama and his aides often chide the "day-to-day chatter of cable television," and Obama recently offered this tart defense of his response to the oil spill: "I don’t always have time to perform for the benefit of the cable shows."
Now politicians typically wrestle with the press, and many complaints about the 24/7 news cycle are on point. But Obama has not only chosen to empower TV-driven news coverage of his administration, he has done so at the cost of access for print and alternative media. The White House arranges far more TV interviews for the president than print interviews. (The line about performing for cable shows came during an interview with the Today.) The decrease in official press conferences further limits access for print reporters, since it is the only venue for many print reporters to ever have a shot at questioning the president. And during one of the few press conferences that Obama has held as president, he made the highly unusual choice of refusing to take a single question from the four national newspapers (the New York Times, the Journal, the Washington Post and USA Today.) These are longstanding problems, but BP’s never-ending story may bring them to a head.
Obama is rightly annoyed by the made-for-TV quality of oil spill criticism—the main character needs to show more anger in this scene—but instead of complaining on TV about TV, he should try changing the channel. He could hold more press conferences, and invite not only White House reporters but also environmental experts for a deeper exchange on the crisis. (Think less emotion, more acoustic switches.) To engage people in the Gulf region, he could dust off some of the technology from the old days and convene an unfiltered, online town hall for the most popular questions from regular people and citizen media on the ground.
In other words, the solution to the White House’s press woes is pretty obvious: Stop complaining about the media you have, and start engaging the media you want. Of course, that assumes Obama’s stated desire for a deeper, more substantive conversation is genuine. He just has to prove it.